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Congo: Confronting rape as a weapon of war

In the rape capital of the world, some are seeking to curb sexual violence by focusing on men's role in preventing it.

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Lwaboshi Bahati (center), with some of his children, banished his wife from their home after she was raped by militiamen in Congo’s running ethnic conflict. But, through a reeducation program, he realized this made his family and society suffer, so he welcomed her back.

Mary Knox Merrill / Staff

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First his wife, then his daughter. Five years ago, Hutu militiamen tied up Lwaboshi Bahati and forced him and his children to watch as they raped those nearest to his heart. Then they took everything he owned.

"I was so angry. Up until now, I can't forget. I can't express how bad I feel," says Mr. Bahati, an unemployed former small-business owner.

But at his wife's time of greatest need, he kicked her out of the house. She was defiled; damaged goods. Besides, she might give him the AIDS virus that she must have caught from the militiamen. At least that's how he saw things back then.

"I didn't hate my wife, but I didn't appreciate what happened. I was afraid," Bahati whispers, behind a bush, out of earshot of villagers. For them to know would bring ridicule upon him, the man who couldn't protect his wife.

And Bahati is not alone. Hundreds of thousands of men in eastern Congo are in the same position: The stigma of rape compels them to hide what happened and shun their wives, compounding a horrible situation.

This is what war looks like in what has been called "the rape capital of the world," where the weapon of sexual violence is so commonly used that people seem numb to it. Doctors and activists call it an "epidemic." Five million people have died, and an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 women have been raped in the past decade of tangled conflict among ethnic militias and regional militaries fighting for Congo's mineral riches.

"Even in a wartime setting, Congo is unusual and exceptional," says Michael Van Rooyen, the director of Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative and an emergency physician with experience in international disaster zones. And, he says, it appears that "rape is becoming part of the culture."

Focus on men's role in preventing rape

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Because rape is so prevalent in the war-torn east, Congo is perhaps an ideal laboratory for testing the premise of a global trend in the fight against rape: a new focus on men's role in preventing it. Historically, it's been the after-the-fact symptom of the problem – the women victims – that have absorbed attention and resources.

That's why Washington-based Women for Women International set up here to get respected men to show others how devastating rape is to society. That's why Bahati can talk now – even if only in hushed tones – about changing his views and reclaiming his family from the effects of rape.

"While we are an organization that values investment in women, you have to engage larger communities," says Lyric Thompson, policy analyst at Women for Women. "In many places we work, the community leaders are men, so we use men's position of influence. Our program in Congo is a model for other programs. It involves a huge paradigm shift from approaching men as the perpetrators – the enemy – to engaging them as allies; as fathers, sons, brothers."

This past year, thanks to the program, Bahati took his wife back after four years of shunning her. (She also tested negative for the AIDs virus.)

"Before, it was hard to be with her, but today we are friends. We are smiling," says Bahati, explaining that local leaders trained by Women for Women taught him that the rape episode wasn't his fault and that punishing his wife for it not only brought unnecessary suffering to his family, but to all of society as well.

He no longer needed to be complicit in letting rape destroy his people. "Now life is OK. We've gotten over what happened," he says.

An epidemic of sexual abuse

In Eastern Congo, men rape for a variety of reasons.

In an empty room in the countryside, a former militiaman – now a colonel in Congo's Army, who doesn't want to be named – pulls his hat over his face and explains to the Monitor on video camera why he used to rape: "I did it because we were in the bush for many months at a time. It was rare to meet women.… We wanted to seize the opportunity."

He "only" raped twice, he says, and doesn't remember the details, because he was high on marijuana at the time. Drug use is common among militiamen, and getting high makes it easier to raid and pillage villages, he says.

Other rebels in his group raped to punish women whom they thought were spies. "I witnessed men raping to punish," says the colonel. "We did it for revenge. It happens all the time.

"When we were going to fight, maybe 150 rebels would go with only 10 guns," he says. "Sometimes 50 of us would be killed in one battle. So I could be happy that I raped, because I could tell the other militiamen: 'At least I raped one of their women.' "

It's not just militias. Gov­ernment soldiers rape, too – a lot, he says.

"Sometimes women were used to lure soldiers to fall in love with them, so they could pass intelligence to the rebels they were collaborating with," says the colonel. "So Army men raped to discourage this."

"We behaved like animals," he mutters in apology.

But now, he adds, things are different: "Today we are sensitized by [organizations] like Women for Women. They've showed us that we must respect women and avoid abuse. We've learned that nothing can be done without women." And, he adds that he regularly talks to public groups about his case: "I don't fear to tell others how bad rape is."

Women for Women has made a special effort to train top military and police officials, and these officials are getting smarter about how to prevent rape by those under their command.

The colonel says commanders now tell soldiers not to rape and that "to destroy a woman is to destroy our nation."

Plus, he says, "Now we're stationed in town, so we can have sex with our wives."

Challenges in enforcing the law

Part of the reason that encouraging a culture of social responsibility is important, local authorities say, is that it holds more power than the law.

Enforcement is problematic because police and soldiers aren't paid for months. And when they are paid, standard monthly pay is only $25, says Maj. Honorine Munyole, head of a 30-person police battalion charged with protecting women and children. "We don't even have paper to write tickets on," laments Ms. Munyole from her ramshackle office in the city of Buvavu. They don't have vehicles to go anywhere on Congo's muddy roads. "A 9-year-old girl was raped by a soldier the other day, but we couldn't get there," she shrugs.

Still, 217 suspected rapists were arrested last year, and 20 so far this year: But most escape justice by paying off judges. And, Munyole says, each of them threatened her and her staff: "We can't work after 6 p.m., when it starts getting dark. Sometimes they throw stones at us. They broke my glasses with a stone."

Munyole had to transfer her daughter to a new school after she was threatened with rape because of her mom's work. "The perpetrators need to be punished, but there are always calls to release them," she says. "Where will all of this end up? I feel bad. It touches me very deeply."

'If men are not involved it will not change'

Women for Women is expanding its Men's Leadership Program to a provincial capital, Goma. In a concrete hall, program director Cyprien Walupakah is giving a rousing speech on women's rights to a select crowd of male leaders: priests, businessmen, teachers, government officials, soldiers, police. "Let's talk about rape," he thunders into a microphone. "Sex abuse is defined as anything against her will."

After he reels off specific examples of bad behavior toward women, the heads of provincial police and military give reports, and explain the difficulty of enforcing rape laws. A priest stands to say that he's happy the Army chiefs are present so he can tell them how military officials pull rank and release rapists from police custody.

The meeting gets lively when one man grabs the mike and dresses down the police and Army officials present, accusing them of taking second "wives" against their will when deployed in remote areas. The crowd breaks into raucous applause.

"We have a crisis of leadership [in Congo]," says Mr. Walupakah in an interview after the training session, adding that it's rare to see military and police officers speak to a crowd and be held accountable. "If men are not involved [in preventing rape], it will not change.

"It's a step-by-step process," he says, explaining that each man trained is supposed to train five others.

Since the program started in June 2006, 1,600 men have taken it. It's hard to measure how many have trained others, says Walupakah, cautioning that success over time will depend on what men bring back to their villages. At present, he estimates that only one-third of those who attend training remain active in their villages. Walupakah hopes to bring that rate up through continued visits and training. He admits that the group has a long way to go before rape rates go down, but he's happy with the start: "If we resuscitate the leaders, we can really form a new generation."

The next stage in the fight against rape

Women to Women has programs in Nigeria and Afghanistan. And groups in the US are focusing on men's role in tackling rape. Men Can Stop Rape began in 1997 after men in Washington neighborhoods noticed little focus on men's role in this "women's issue."

Now the group puts on 16-week "Men of Strength" workshops in high schools and middle schools in the United States and in the military. They're set to open an office in Uganda next year and are considering one in Brazil. They're even talking with Johns Hopkins and Howard universities to develop the first master's program in prevention of violence toward women.

The group's CEO, Stephen Glaude, says that the focus on men is the next stage in the evolution of the fight against rape – after treating rape victims and helping women reduce the risk of rape. "We are the next leg of the movement."

Getting to the root of the problem isn't easy. And explaining how men can stop rape is still a tough sell.

Back in Congo, Women for Women country director Christine Karumba says that it's difficult to secure funding for the Men's Leadership Training program compared with the group's many other initiatives. "Most donors want to get involved in the relief services [for rape victims]," she says. "Many people think it's not the right time [to focus on men]. We strongly believe it's the right time. Men have to be part of the solution."•

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